What is The New Yorker? I know it’s a great magazine and that it’s a tremendous source of pleasure in my life. But what exactly is it? This blog’s premise is that The New Yorker is a work of art, as worthy of comment and analysis as, say, Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Each week I review one or more aspects of the magazine’s latest issue. I suppose it’s possible to describe and analyze an entire issue, but I prefer to keep my reviews brief, and so I usually focus on just one or two pieces, to explore in each the signature style of its author. A piece by Matthew Trammell is not like a piece by James Wood, and neither is like a piece by Peter Schjeldahl. One could not mistake Finnegan for Frazier, or Lepore for Paumgarten, or Goodyear for Khatchadourian. Each has found a style, and it is that style that I respond to as I read, and want to understand and describe.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

November 19, 2012 Issue

These days it seems that Roger Angell, the New Yorker’s great baseball writer, spends as much time thinking about double burial plots as he does contemplating double plays. This may strike some people as morbid, but not me. I enjoy nosing around old cemeteries. I enjoy reading about them, too. Angell’s “Here Below” (The New Yorker, January 16, 2006) is a wonderful cemetery piece, ranking with Joseph Mitchell’s classic “Mr. Hunter’s Grave” (The New Yorker, September 22, 1956; Up in the Old Hotel, 1992) and John Updike’s superb “Cemeteries” (Picked-Up Pieces, 1976). “Here Below” describes visits that Angell and his wife, Carol, made to Palisades Cemetery, Stockbridge cemetery, and (most memorably) Brooklin, Maine, Cemetery, where a number of his family, including his mother (Katherine S. White) and step-father (E. B. White), are buried. I like Angell’s descriptions of grave markers (e.g., “An other eloquent marker nearby was a tall and faded pinkish-brown slab – perhaps it’s brownstone – with a scalloped top and the pleasing old willow-tree-and-stone-urn drawing barely visible here, that you find in this part of the country”). Interestingly, “Here Below” contains one of the longest sentences I’ve ever seen in The New Yorker, an amazing construction that innocuously begins, “Mother smiles and sighs and picks at her roast potato,” and then takes off, running sixty-eight lines, ending with a question mark.

Angell’s “Over the Wall,” in this week’s issue of the magazine, is a touching sequel to “Here Below.” In this new piece, Angell again visits Brooklin Cemetery. This time he describes two additional grave markers – his wife’s, who died early last April – and his own (“it only lacks the final numbers”). And he mentions another grave, as well, “that of my daughter Callie, who died two years ago.” Angell doesn’t linger over his wife’s grave. He says, “My visits to Carol didn’t last long. I’d perk up the flowers in the vase we had there, and pick deadheads off a pot of yellow daisies; if there had been rain overnight, I’d pick up any pieces of the sea glass that had fallen and replace them on the gentle curve and small shoulders of her stone.” That “on the gentle curve and small shoulders of her stone” is inspired. In the oldest part of the cemetery, Angell sees headstones “worn to an almost identical whiteness. Some of the lettering has been blackened by lichen, and some washed almost to invisibility.” This echoes one of “Here Below”’s best lines: “Carol found one of the markers we were looking for: a silvery granite oblong, with the letters fading into invisibility.” Fading into invisibility – time’s inevitable effect. Angell’s two marvelous cemetery pieces make the vanishing process almost palpable. 

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